Fiction

The Land of Might-Have-Been.

LORENZO SEMPLE January 1 1952
Fiction

The Land of Might-Have-Been.

LORENZO SEMPLE January 1 1952

The Land of Might-Have-Been.

Fiction

THE PROFESSOR PUT ON HIS PITH HELMET, GRASPED UMBRELLA, GOT INTO HIS BATHTUB AND THREW THE SWITCH. THEN HIS TIME MACHINE ZOOMED INTO

WHERE REBECCA WAS WAITING FOR HIM WITH GRAPES AND KISSES

LORENZO SEMPLE

Jr.

WHEN Sneden came in the front door, Professor Arthur Tyro was engaged in filling his bathtub. The professor nodded amiably at his guest and

continued filling the tub, which stood on a somewhat raised platform in the middle of the living room, with the following objects: a raccoon coat and mittens, a

fishing rod, the complete works of Shakespeare, a black silk umbrella, a twelve-gauge repeating shotgun, and a pith helmet. Then he turned to Sneden and said hello.

“Tyro!” cried Sneden. “What, on earth are you doing?”

“Stocking up for my trip,” said the professor.

“Your trip? In that—that bathtubƒ”

“It only looks like a bathtub,” the professor explained.

“I made it that shape because I’ve always found bathtubs wonderfully comfortable. Actually, it’s a Time Machine.”

And now that he regarded the thing more closely Sneden saw that it did have certain uncommon features.

The enameled feet, for instance, had been replaced by four small gloves of quartz. There were a number of wires and coils connecting the bathtub to the platform on which it rested. Where the spout and faucets should have been gleamed several dials and switches.

“A Time Machine!” Sneden groaned. “I’m disappointed in you, Tyro. Here I’ve always considered you a genuinely creative intellect and I find you tinkering with that most banal of fantasies—a Time Machine!”

Professor Tyro smiled owlishly. He was a moderately handsome man in his middle thirties, and did not look like a scientist at all.

“Have you been drinking?” Sneden demanded. “Are you drunk?”

“A little,” the professor admitted, looking vaguely at the array of empty wine bottles strewn around the room.

“After all,” he said, “I can hardly take this Montrachet ’43 along with me. To transport it even a year from here would utterly ruin its bouquet.”

Sneden, who was the president of the large foundation which financed Professor Tyro’s investigations into the higher mathematic, decided that a little humoring was called for. “On what principle does this bathtub operate?” he enquired, as soberly as he could.

“I can’t very well put it into words,” the professor apologized. “Suffice it to say that it is something like a yo-yo without a string. These wires and coils are not the propellant, of course. They are merely a makeshift device to warp the magnetic field.”

“Hmmmn, I see,” said Sneden, who saw nothing except that his friend needed a long rest in tropic parts.

“And that bizarre collection of objects?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that I can control this machine once I get it moving,” Professor Tyro said.

“I may be borne back to a glacial period: thus the fur coat and mittens. Or perhaps even earlier, when all living things were still in the sea: thus the fishing rod.

Or worse yet, back to the time of the endless rains: thus the umbrella.”

Sneden shook his head in unconcealed pity.

“I know,” said Tyro sympathetically. “The umbrella is really a joke, of course. I threw it in purely for my sense of humor. I imagine you find this whole venture on the quixotic side.”

“That is hardly the phrase I’d have chosen,” Sneden observed dryly. He leaned over to peer at the dial mounted where a hot-water faucet belonged.

“What looks like the second-hand of a clock,” Tyro

explained, “is calibrated

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in centuries. The hour-hand registers millennia.”

“I think you’re serious!” Sneden gasped.

“Intensely serious,” Tyro said. “I’d like to have planned this machine more carefully. As it is I haven’t been able to devise a steering gear. I’ll simply have to take my chances.” He smiled discreetly. “To tell you the truth, Sneden, I’m running away. I’m improvising a getaway.”

“Indeed? From what?”

“From the end of the universe,” said the professor.

Sneden went into a choking spell. “Come into my study and I’ll try to explain,” said Professor Tyro pleasantly. “Rut first let’s have a bite of supper and finish what remains of the Montrachet ’43.”

THE dinner was a fine one for, unlike many scientists, Arthur Tyro was as devoted to the body as he was to the mind. He ate his guinea hen dreamily, with the abstracted air of a man whose mind is wandering back over all the pleasant days of his life. The baked Alaska was almost finished before he became conscious that Sneden was drumming impatiently on the table with his salad fork. “Excuse me,” said Tyro. “I’m not being a good host. How is your wife?”

“Rebecca’s very well,” replied Sneden tartly. He leaned over the polished mahogany. “Though I’m certainly not going to tell her of this madness of yours, Tyro. Rebecca has always admired you.”

“Has she?” Tyro asked absently. He remembered how Rebecca Sneden had once wandered into his laboratory when he was working at the foundation’s research centre. They had chatted for almost fifteen minutes before he knew who she was. It was curious, Tyro reflected, how he had never forgotten that conversation. When he thought back on it . . .

“Stop daydreaming,” said Sneden. “This has been a most excellent meal and I appreciate your hospitality, but please do continue with what you started to tell me.”

IT BEGAN,” said Professor Tyro, “with a rather routine investigation into the curvature of space.”

“I recall your last paper,” Sneden said. “We all thought it was alarmingly vague.”

“The vagueness was by design,” the professor said. He paused to light a seventy-five-cent Havana cigar. He took a deep sniff' from his pony of brandy. “As you undoubtedly know,” he said, “it has been verified beyond doubt that the universe is expanding at an incredible rate of speed. All the stars and galaxies are flying out into the void. The whole universe is expanding like a balloon, like a piece of bubble gum.

“Now every substance has certain

definite physical characteristics. If you study the rubber of a child’s balloon you can calculate with absolute certainty the limits of its expansion. After it reaches a certain maximum diameter it will burst.” Tyro knocked a silken ash from his corona. “What is not so generally known, however, is that what we call Space has its physical characteristics also. Thanks to your generosity, Sneden, I’ve been making a study of them. My inescapable conclusion is that Space too is destined to burst.”

“Burst, Tyro? How can Space burst?” Sneden muttered. “I can understand a balloon bursting—it just becomes a piece of flat rubber. Rut what could Space become if it burst?”

“That,” said Tyro sadly, “is where the symbols of mathematics can scarcely be replaced by words. You must take my word for it, I’m afraid, that what we call Space will revert to pure Time.”

“Pure Time? That’s inconceivable,” Sneden scoffed.

“I know it is,” said the professor. “On the other hand, so is infinity. So is the square root of a minus number. You’d be surprised how many inconceivable concepts we all accept merely because they have become familiar.”

Sneden smiled despairingly.

“Your scepticism is naïve,” Professor Tyro remarked mildly. “Every schoolboy knows that matter and energy may be expressed as functions of each other—as different manifestations of the same thing. Basically, I find it no more incredible that we should add Time and so arrive at a sort of Holy Trinity. If this delicious cigar can be considered a form of energy, why can’t it equally well be considered a warp in Time? Before you balk at that let me remind you that an equation of energy and matter would have seemed just as demented to your grandfather as this does to you.”

“Interesting if true,” muttered Sneden, who was at heart a pedant.

“A great deal more than interesting,” returned Professor Tyro. “According to my calculations, at this very moment the universe is straining at its seams like an overblown balloon. The great event will occur at precisely eleven o’clock, Eastern Daylight Saving Time, tonight.”

“What?” cried Sneden.

“Our universe will vanish,” said the professor calmly.

“Tyro, you have gone mad! You ought to be locked up!”

The Westminster chimes of the mantelpiece clock rang out across the room. The hands stood at ten forty-five.

“In fifteen minutes,” Tyro repeated, “there will be nothing left of creation but a ripple on the ocean of time. Now, my dear Sneden, you see why I have built my Time Machine. Our only chance is to ride the wave, to escape to the past—-before it happens.”

“Our only hope?”

“But of course,” said the professor. “I’d be an ingrate if I didn’t invite you to come along too.” Arthur Tyro extinguished his cigar and immediately lighted another. “Shall we get ready?” he asked politely.

THE CLOCK said seven minutes to eleven as Professor Tyro lowered himself, not quite steadily, into the bathtub. He glanced up inquisitively at Sneden. “Tell me,” he said, “would you prefer to sit with your feet pointing toward yesterday or tomorrow? It’s quite immaterial to me, but I know how some people feel about traveling backwards.”

“I’m going to stay right where I am!” retorted Sneden vehemently. “This is sheer lunacy. It’s exactly what one would expect to happen to a

Scientist with too much money and leisure!”

“I plead with you, Sneden. You’re naïve, but I like you.”

“Tyro, get out of that bathtub!” said Sneden sternly, in the tone one uses to an obstinate child.

“Come along,” said the professor. “Its your last chance. By my watch it’s T-minus-three.”

“If you’re not careful, you’re going to electrocute yourself!” said Sneden indignantly. “And won’t 1 look silly trying to explain this to the Board of Trustees?”

The professor did not seem to have heard. “I do hope this thing is headed in the right direction,” he mumbled. “If I fly oT into the future -of which there isn’t going to be any it will all be a frightful waste.”

“Tyro!” cried Sneden again, as he saw the professor’s hand move to a gleaming electrical switch just outside the bathtub.

“Very well,” sighed Professor Tyro. “Good-by, Sneden. I really would have enjoyed your company.”

He placed the pith helmet on his head, tightened the chin strap, and closed the switch.

There was a blinding flash of light and a terrible roar, which struck a detached part of Sneden’s mind as sounding like the bellow of a dinosaur or some other beast of remotest antiquity, and then Professor Tyro and his bathtub and most of his house all went up in a billowing cloud of smoke.

AT THE inquest which followed there was very little evidence. Sneden, still swathed in bandages, recounted his story of what had happened. The medical examiner testified that, although no trace of the late Arthur Tyro had been found, the apparent heat of the explosion could easily have carbonized the body completely. After a conference between Sneden and the local chief of police it had« been decided to suppress the curious assortment of objects which liad been found scattered around the ruins of the professor’s house: several Indian arrowheads, a Cretan coin of immense age, the fossilized egg of a pterodactyl, and many other such relics. As to the professor’s notebooks, shreds of which had been salvaged from the boughs of a nearby oak, a committee of eminent mathematicians found them filled with misplaced decimal points.

The verdict was death through misadventure.

“Poor man,” sighed Rebecca Sneden to her husband as they left the courtroom. “I only met him once, but I liked him a lot.”

PROFESSOR Tyro, meanwhile, had' a calm trip. He held tight to the sides of his bathtub until, after a period of which he had no memory, he landed lightly in a field. He leaped up and peered at the time indicator. To his consternation the hands of the dial still pointed to the year 1952.

It began to rain then, but before Tyro could open his umbrella a flight of flamingoes spotted him and beneficently joined their wings over his head. Thus protected from the elements, he walked over to a house on a nearby hill. It was built of silver pillars and had a crystal roof. He wandered through the open gates into a patio. Two tigers raised their heads from the wildflowers which they were munching and looked at him with mild curiosity. Acting on a sudden impulse Professor Tyro bade them to come to him and lie down in such a manner as to form a couch. The beasts complied immediately and for several hours after that he lay in a dreamless sleep.

When Tyro awoke he found himself looking into the deep blue eyes of Rebecca Sneden.

“Have a grape, darling,” she said, plucking a cluster lightly from a dangling vine.

“I think I will,” said the professor.

Rebecca leaned over and kissed him. “I’ve been waiting such a long time, Arthur!” she whispered. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”

It took Professor Tyro several minutes before he could answer. Then he suddenly sat up very straight and clapped his hands to his head.

“Good heavens!” Tyro cried. “I believe I see what happened!”

“Happened? Has something happened?” Rebecca said.

“Howextraordinary t hat nobody has ever thought of it!”

“Thought of what?” she asked patiently, though it was plainly of no great concern to her.

“People have always presumed,” cried Tyro, “that a Time Machine must travel either forward to WhatWill-Be or backward to What-Was! But my bathtub, having no steering apparatus, apparently did neither! 1

went off sideways!” He looked at Rebecca with a rapturous smile. “Don’t you know where we are?” he asked.

“All 1 know is that I like it here, Arthur.”

“We’re in What-Might-Have-Been!” said Professor Tyro.

Then he looked down over the flowered hillsides and the gamboling beasts and recognized the verdant island which lay between two silver rivers. It was Montreal Island, but it took Arthur less than a moment to decide that he would christen it something else. if